Further Questions: Should an Applicant Include More than One Reference from the Same Job?

This week we have a reader’s question. I asked people who hire librarians:

Do hiring managers prefer to see 3 references from the same library job, or do all 3 references need to be from different jobs, even if some of those are non-library? (or, to make it broader if you want, should an applicant include more than one reference from the same job?)

Like many questions, the answer to this one is – “It depends.”

In general I’d rather see more than one past position represented in a reference list; otherwise it could suggest that was the only place a candidate was successful.  But obviously if a candidate is early in her career, or conversely has been in one organization for many years, one position may be the best source of recommendations a candidate has.  For candidates not too many years beyond grad school using a faculty member for one reference would be fine.  And at any stage a non-library reference would be fine too.  In the case of a candidate with long service at a single organization a non-library reference from relevant volunteer work would be suitable.  For early career candidates a reference from again, an arguably relevant non-library position, can be useful.  If you are applying to run access services, and you have worked in a customer service department, that work is pertinent and a recommendation from that supervisor would be relevant.

If you do use one job for all three references it might be good if those people could represent varied parts of the organization and/or be able to speak to at least somewhat different facets of your work.  And having references from individuals senior to you in the organization and/or someone who supervised you is also important.  I might still have questions about aspects of a candidate’s competencies or behavior, and it could possibly even raise questions about a candidate’s competence or attitudes if all the references were a candidate’s friends.

So in general I’d say diversity is good, but it is not the only consideration when selecting references and that you shouldn’t be slavish to a formula.  Your three strongest recommenders should be the ones you list .  (A final note – it is critical to ask your references if they would be willing to give you a recommendation first, as well as to check each time you are searching to confirm they are still willing; listing someone you haven’t asked is a major blunder, and can do your candidacy a lot of damage. It is also a courtesy to advise them if you know or think it is possible that someone may be contacting them; providing the job description and any other pertinent information you have can strengthen your recommender’s responses to questions.)

– Ann Glannon, Associate Director, Wheelock College Library, Boston, MA


Christine Hage - Dark backgroundI prefer to have references from three different jobs or at least three different perspectives.  Supervisors are the natural reference, but patrons, coworkers, members of community organizations that have interacted with the candidate are welcome.

I call at least one of the listed references, usually the supervisor to ask if they would hire this person again.  I’m more inclined to call someone in my professional network to get their thoughts.  If the candidate has listed activity in a library association I’d call someone I knew who was active in the association.  I might call someone I trusted at a neighboring library.  In that case they may or may not know the candidate, but might fill me in on the type of library the candidate is leaving.  Are they progressive?  Rule bound? Over/under staffed? Known for having good staff?  There may be no personal knowledge of the candidate, but I can get a feeling of the setting they are leaving and this might help me in an interview situation. 

There is one library in our area that has a long history of staff unrest.  I no longer interview anyone from that library as I don’t want to spoil the good chemistry we have at our library.

References are just one aspect of the interview, but sometimes can give you more insight to the candidate.  Most libraries restrict references to dates of employment and job title so this is why I find it helpful to speak informally to someone outside of the supervisory structure.

– Christine Hage, Director, Rochester Hills Public Library


Marleah AugustineI prefer seeing 3 references from different jobs. However, I know that sometimes folks (especially in support staff roles) are just getting into the field and may not have that many references. I’d rather see a professor as one of the references than just 3 references all from the same job. Candidates can get creative about who is a reference – as mentioned, professors, but also anyone you’ve worked closely with in your path to your career. Having a couple of references from a single job is best if the references serve different roles and worked with you in two different capacities (but can still vouch for your abilities).

– Marleah Augustine, Adult Department Librarian at Hays Public Library


Marge Loch WoutersI appreciate three references from different perspectives – and not usually everyone from the same building that someone works in.  It doesn’t always have to be a reference from a previous job.  For me, the more current, the better.

Perhaps it is a colleague who has collaborated with you; perhaps a professor; perhaps a librarian colleague who is active both statewide or nationally who has seen and appreciated your work; perhaps someone you are actively engaged with professionally on social media in planning a program or conference. The wider the net of those who can speak to your fabulousness the better.  Also choosing people who can each address a different strength of yours provides a fuller picture.  Don’t hesitate to ask your references to address specific areas. It really helps!

– Marge Loch-Wouters, Youth Services Coordinator, La Crosse (WI) Public Library


I don’t have a strong preference as to whether the references are from different or non-library jobs.  It will depend on the applicant’s work history.  If they had a substantial career in another field before choosing librarianship, by all means I want to know about that.  However, I do prefer to see references that are from the applicant’s supervisor(s).  Not necessarily all of them, but at least some.  I always want to speak with the applicant’s current supervisor before hiring, even if they didn’t list them as a reference.  Of course, I will talk with the applicant before contacting anyone not listed as a reference, and take into account their reasons for not choosing a current supervisor as a reference.  It’s important that the relationship between the applicant and the reference be made clear at some point, possibly by the reference in their letter or by clarifying questions is the reference is via telephone.  If a reference is just someone’s friend or colleague, and they haven’t collaborated on significant projects, that reference won’t mean a lot to me.  I would prefer a substantive reference from a non-library job, discussing personal attributes and work habits that are important in any job, to a general letter from a library school professor who taught the applicant in a few classes and didn’t have an in-depth relationship with them. 

– Anonymous


scott wiebensohnThis is an interesting question.  If I received an applicant that had 3 references all from the same job I would be quite curious in this candidate.  In my professional opinion, having references from past/current position(s), fellow library professionals, and a sound personal contact would be a better choice.  Following this advice allows the hiring manager to obtain a few different perspectives of the candidate in a variety of work/volunteer settings.  I also encourage job applicants to list more than three references.  It takes time to build strong professional connections and it demonstrates that you have a growing group of individuals who have wonderful words to say about your work.

– Scott Wiebensohn, Manager of Library Services, Jones eGlobal


Hiring managers prefer to talk to references that will be able to talk about your work with them that would apply to the job they need you to do. If that means the references are going to all be from the same library, then it means they are all from the same library especially if you worked there for several years. That being said, you should always select references that will put you in the best light possible, individuals that can talk about the success of an event that you put together, how you can keep cool under pressure, or how innovative you are. You should also always send the job description to the reference so they know what you are applying for and will have time to think of examples in advance regarding your performance that would apply to that job.

If you are worried about references (or lack of references) that would be “red flags” to a hiring manager, I can provide some examples in that area. I would be concerned if there was no former or current supervisor as a reference (the current is understandable considering you may not want them to know you are applying but a supervisor should be listed). If there are no references at all in the area of your career arch, for example, your resume shows that you have always worked in public services and you are applying for a public services job with my institution but all of your references are from cataloging and acquisitions, I would have to wonder what kind of impression you are leaving with your public services colleagues.

Regarding references from careers outside of the library field, if you are not far along in your career, you may need to have a non-library reference. Another reason you might use a non-library reference would depend on the position you are applying for. If there is a heavy marketing and project planning element to the position you are applying for and you have a strong background in this from your career prior to librarianship, your previous non-library supervisor in this area would be a valuable reference for you. Having all non-library references, however, would be a huge red flag for me in hiring for a professional position (but not necessarily for support staff). This is why getting some library experience while working on your MLS is so important! Even if you are a volunteer shelver at your local public library. One library reference for part-time volunteer work is better than no library reference at all.

– Julie Leuzinger, Department Head, Eagle Commons Library, University of North Texas Libraries


J. McRee ElrodWe would find three references from the same job redundant.  


Work habits in library jobs are relevant.


– J. McRee (Mac) Elrod, Special Libraries Catalouging


Randall SchroederThis is one of those things doing a job search that is very easy to overthink. In my experiences references almost never get you the job. They may disqualify you, but they do not put you over the top. I would like to see at least one reference from your current position, but I also understand when you want to keep the application quiet so as not to cause political problems at your old place of work. If the other two references come from other jobs, it is not usually a red flag. The one thing that raises my eyebrow are personal references. I’ve received contacts for family friends and clergy. I’m really not that interested. Keep them professional, please.
One of the most interesting requests for a job I was applying for was a reference from someone that supervised me, someone for whom I supervised, and a colleague of equal stature on the org chart. Interesting idea.
– Randall Schroeder, Director of Libraries, Archives and Media at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota

Sarah MorrisonIt really depends on your work history, I think.  If you’ve been at one job long enough that previous coworkers can’t talk specifically about your qualities, I think three references from the same library would be fine; if the references were from different departments within your library, that would help.  Hopefully you can include as a reference someone you know at another library who served on a committee or worked on a regional project with you.  I would prefer to see max. two references besides supervisors from a single position. 

Even if some of the references are non-library, they’re still going to be able to talk about your work ethic, customer service skills, and reliability.  Our phone reference calls don’t go into specifics about the job duties, so non-library references are no problem.  The only thing I don’t want to see on a resume are personal references—your neighbor, your pastor, your friend.  Professors, intern and volunteer supervisors, and previous coworkers are all fine, no matter what field you were in at the time.

– Sarah Morrison, Adult Services Librarian, Neill Public Library, Pullman, Washington


Sherle Abramson-BluhmI personally have no qualifiers for references.  I am mostly hiring entry level so the chances that someone would have 3 library references is remote.
I want references to speak to work ethic, skills that could be applicable, flexibility and openness to learning.
I want them to be fairly recent, but have accepted new references for older positions if someone is re-entering the workforce.  My feeling is that if they can get a supervisor from the past to speak of their abilities than they made an impact.
I would almost rather they not all be from one job – unless the person has been there so long it would be irrelevant to go further back.
In this case it might be helpful to see a reference from a non-employer – someone who served on a committee with the person; someone who worked with them in a club, organization or volunteer setting.
– Sherle Abramson-Bluhm, Head, Print Acquisitions, University of Michigan

Thank you as always to our contributors for their time and insight.  If you’re someone who hires librarians and are interested in participating in this feature, please email me at hiringlibrariansATgmail.com.

Thank YOU for reading! Yeah man and then the local band get up on the stage and they begin to rage.  They being to rock and roll, they got the super comment.

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Filed under Academic, Further Questions, Other Organization or Library Type, Public, Special

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